It’s hard to know what looks more far-fetched in 2023. That Grimsby will try to reach the club’s third FA Cup semi-final against Brighton on Sunday, not their first; or that previous runs in the last four, including victories over Manchester City and Chelsea, had nothing to do with David or Goliath.
Grimsby’s semi-final appearances in 1936 and 1939 were highlights of the greatest period in club history. From 1929 to 1948, including a hiatus for World War II, they spent 10 of 12 seasons in the top flight. All three of Grimsby’s England internationals were capped during this period: center forward Jackie Bestall (described in this article as a ‘shrewd daredevil and constructive genius’), goalkeeper George Tweedy and inspirational centre-back Harry Betmead each scored a singles appearance between 1935 and 1937 .
Only two English football powerhouses – and in one case, a grotesque misfortune – prevented Grimsby from reaching Wembley. Their first cup run came in the season after they finished fifth, their all-time highest league position. After beating Hartlepool and Port Vale, Grimsby was drawn at home to Manchester City in the fifth round. Within 15 months City would be champions for the first time, but to call this game a meeting of equals would have been generous only for City: Grimsby finished 10th, City 16th.
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Grimsby’s rousing 3-2 win at Blundell Park was among the best FA Cup games of the decade, one that saw pompous reporters rave about the quality of the game and the sportsmanship. City’s second equalizer, a stylish team goal from John McLeod, resulted in the most rousing celebration of the day – and it came from the Grimsby fans. That newspaper said the two sides had ‘given Lincolnshire football one of the greatest stimulants in its history’.
Grimsby manager Frank Womack confused the City defense by rotating his wingers and center forwards. At the same time, three years later, against Sheffield United, his replacement, Frank Spencer, used a similar maneuver to just as good effect.
Grimsby’s tactical sophistication is one of many recurring themes in their two cup runs. Others include replays starting at 2:15pm on a Tuesday, forensic reports of gate receipts and relevant train times in the newspapers – and, most importantly, the impact of injuries at a time when there were no substitutes.
Grimsby defeated Middlesbrough 3-1 in the quarter-finals, a game in which Betmead and Ernie Coleman were sent off after a fist-based disagreement. This mainly meant that Betmead was banned for the semi-finals.
With a couple of Division Two teams in the last four, Grimsby were the second favorites to win the cup, 5-2. Unfortunately, they lost out: Arsenal, league champions in each of the previous three seasons, at Leeds Road in Huddersfield. Arsenal had an unscheduled year off in the league but were still a symbol of class, glamor and power. The game was a one-sided 1-0, decided by an elegant Cliff Bastin goal. Grimsby’s hero was Tweedy, who made many good saves and three amazing saves.
The game was played on a terribly hot March day. This was a problem in a crowded stadium, especially since removing a suit jacket or even a fedora was tantamount to indecent exposure, and dozens of fans were carried away on stretchers after fainting.
Grimsby’s second major cup run came in the final season before World War II; Although no one noticed at the time, this was the end of the club’s golden age. They defeated Tranmere 6-0 and defeated Millwall and Sheffield United after replays. That was thanks to goals from their struggling striker Fred Howe – described after a game-winning performance, in a textbook Guardian Typo, as “enormous concern”.
They returned to London for the quarter-finals and faced a side from Chelsea struggling against relegation. On a swamp at Stamford Bridge, Grimsby controlled the game with calm authority, even if the only goal came when Chelsea were temporarily reduced to 10 men.
Happiness evens out, so the cliche goes, but forgets to stop every now and then. In the semi-finals at Old Trafford, Grimsby faced the country’s most exciting team, Wolves. Wolves were the favourites, but only in a bookmaking sense. “No team could be more popular as visitors to Wembley than Grimsby,” it read Just Preview. “They have retained a calm individuality in these times of large transfers and hectic business. They are a club in the best and most intimate sense of the word.”
Grimsby announced his team five days before the game, although newspapers gave just as many column inches to the team’s special semi-final diet: fish for lunch and an apple a day. (Wolves favored soda baths, visits from a podiatrist, and monkey glands, but that’s another story.) An apple a day couldn’t keep the flu away: 48 hours before the game, Tweedy fell ill and was sent to his bed with only a stream of fire and dreams from Wembley for society. It marked a Grimsby debut for 24-year-old Ireland goalkeeper George Moulson.
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Grimsby started the game brilliantly and Moulson touched the ball just once in the first 20 minutes. His second touch was his last – in-game and as a Grimsby player. Moulson suffered a severe concussion while making a brilliant and brave save at the feet of Dicky Dorsett. Both players were helped off the field, although Dorsett later returned. Jack Hodgson went in and every chance Grimsby had was gone. They were defeated 5-0 – “an absurd exaggeration of Wolverhampton’s merits,” he said Guardian – with Dennis Westcott scoring four.
Moulson was treated in the dressing room for the remainder of the game. As the players returned after the final whistle and he heard someone say Grimsby lost 5-0, Moulson staggered to the door and announced he had to get back on the field quickly. He was diverted to the nearest ambulance and spent the next 10 days in the hospital. Moulson’s condition, while not critical, was so bad that he was not allowed visits for almost a week.
He wasn’t the only person to go straight from Old Trafford to the Manchester Royal Infirmary. As in Grimsby’s other semi-final, dozens of fans fell ill. This time it wasn’t the weather – the game, played at the end of March, was adorned with a sleet – but the dangerous overcrowding.
The attendance of 76,962 remains an Old Trafford record. Grimsby’s share of the gate receipts was £1,982, 11 shillings and sevenpence. The memories – and the enduring local pride – were priceless.